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Who Takes the Low Road

By Frank Gruber

For a politician or a journalist to act surprised at negative campaigning is like Claude Rains in "Casablanca" expressing his shock that there is gambling at Rick's, and I promise not to fret about the future of democracy just because the recent City Council election featured a few sharp elbows, a/k/a, "hit pieces."

But that doesn't mean it's not worth it -- and fun -- to speculate about what politicians are after when they take the low road. Negative campaigning is not risk-free -- win or lose, you may alienate constituencies and allies for future elections. Calculation is a must.

Sometimes, the motivations behind a negative or deceptive campaign are obvious. The anti-living wage people mailed deceptive slate cards with the straightforward idea of confusing pro-choice, schools-loving Democrats into voting against the living wage. The opponents of the school parcel tax printed "Save Our Schools" on their posters with the straightforward motive of preventing an increase in taxes.

Other times, one can only wonder.

Consider the hit pieces that enlivened the final days of the City Council election, those of the Police Officers Association (POA) against Bob Holbrook, who won a seat by coming in third, and the one by an organization called "People Over Politics" against Abby Arnold, who lost to Holbrook by about 250 votes.

Why the police in the first place failed to endorse Holbrook, whom they had endorsed in previous elections, and then why they went further, and attacked him directly, is a mystery.

If they based their choices on public safety or cultural issues, Holbrook has been as much a law-and-order politician as any other. If they based their choices on their own economic interests, it's not as if Holbrook has led a charge to audit the cops' overtime.

The politicians closest to the leadership of the POA are the Ken Genser/Kelly Olsen wing of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), and over the years the police and fire unions' choices reflect their influence. But that connection doesn't explain much about why the POA "hit" Holbrook either.

Although the members of the Genser/Olsen group don't always agree about development -- Genser, for instance, has his own nuanced views -- Genser and Olsen and their allies share the characteristic of being anti-developer as much as anti-development. They are known for their vituperation against developers and their representatives and anyone -- including other SMRR politicians and even city staff -- whom they consider fellow travellers.

The attack on Holbrook reminded me of attacks Genser and Olsen have made on other politicians over the years. The m.o. is to take one incident out of context -- in this case, Holbrook's opposition to an overall budget that included an increase in the number of police officers -- and use it as the basis of a smear.

But the beneficiaries of attacking Holbrook had to be either Matt Dinolfo or Abby Arnold. Dinolfo is hardly a no-growther, as he had the courage to say in the campaign that Santa Monica needs economic development, and Arnold was the particular object of the Genser wing's ire when she was seeking the SMRR endorsement.

So I don't get it -- did the police risk alienating conservative voters by attacking Holbrook merely to improve the chances of heavy favorites Pam O'Connor and Kevin McKeown, or those of political newcomer Dinolfo? To punish Holbrook for his support of VERITAS? The overkill doesn't make sense.

I suspect that what we saw was simple nihilism -- the police and their political friends lashing out at a perceived enemy simply because they have the power to do so.

They have the power because the police and fire endorsements are important. While the endorsements aren't alone enough to elect a candidate, it's instructive that no SMRR candidate has won election without them since 1996.

I don't mean to say that SMRR candidates need the endorsements to win, necessarily. It could be that the two unions endorse those they perceive to be front runners, who would win in any event. But election results indicate that the endorsements may be worth two or three thousand votes to SMRR candidates.

The People Over Politics (POP) hit piece on Arnold is easier to understand. POP also sent out "independent" mailers on behalf of Green Party candidate Josefina Aranda.

The treasurer of POP is Eric Siss, a registered Green Party voter with ties that go way back on many old no growth campaigns with both Sharon Gilpin, who was a paid consultant on the campaigns of Aranda and fellow Green Kevin McKeown, and Green Party Mayor Michael Feinstein.

The Greens often talk about making politics more principled, but they went negative on Arnold, even though they had little realistic chance to elect their candidate, Aranda, and when doing so would damage their relationships with SMRR. Perhaps Feinstein would rather have Holbrook sitting with him on the City Council dais than Arnold, who might out-progressive him, but was it worth angering SMRR?

I suppose that depends on how long SMRR's memory is, which will be the most intriguing political question between now and the next election.

One interesting sidelight is that the Greens who went negative on Arnold did what Green Party stalwart Kevin McKeown during the campaign repeatedly said the hotels threatened to do to him. Notwithstanding the deceptive anti-living wage mailers, the hotels never attacked any of the candidates who had voted for the ordinance.

Perhaps they realized that politics is personal, and bridges burnt are hard to rebuild. But they made it tough on McKeown -- it's hard to be a martyr if the other side doesn't cooperate.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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